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Digitally Enlightened or Still in the Dark? Establishing a Sector-Wide Approach to Enhancing Data Synthesis and Research Potential in British Environmental Archaeology and Beyond

Tina Roushannafas, Polydora Baker, Gill Campbell, Emma Jenkins, Jen Parker Wooding, Ruth Pelling, Marc Vander Linden, Fay Worley and Anwen Cooper

Cite this as: Roushannafas, T., Baker, P., Campbell, G., Jenkins, E., Parker Wooding, J., Pelling, R., Vander Linden, M., Worley, F. and Cooper, A. 2024 Digitally Enlightened or Still in the Dark? Establishing a Sector-Wide Approach to Enhancing Data Synthesis and Research Potential in British Environmental Archaeology and Beyond, Internet Archaeology 67.


In a 2019 Internet Archaeology article, Elizabeth Pearson posed the question 'are we back in the Dark Ages?'. This question was made in reference to a developer-funded archaeology sector that was generating vast quantities of evidence and, particularly, in recent years, specialist environmental data, but was failing to mobilise this in a theoretical framework that generated meaningful advancement in terms of research. The introduction to the 2021 Internet Archaeology special issue on Digital Archiving in Archaeology (Richards et al. 2021) went on to address 'a digital resource that is now in jeopardy' – not only because of the risk of technical obsolescence, but also because of crucial limitations to its interoperability and discoverability. This article builds on these arguments and complements vital work underway on high-level, internationally focused data infrastructure initiatives (e.g. Wright and Richards 2018). We emphasise here the importance of parallel discussions at a community level, particularly with the people who routinely produce archaeological data, as key to enhancing data synthesis and research potential. Specifically, we report on two surveys conducted by the 'Rewilding' Later Prehistory project at Oxford Archaeology, in collaboration with Historic England and Bournemouth University, which originated in the 'Rewilding' project's concern with improving access to palaeoenvironmental data produced within Britain. Substantial amounts of zooarchaeological and archaeobotanical data remain buried in grey literature, limited-access publications and archive reports (not to mention floppy disks, CDs and microfiche), with no integrative means of searching for particular periods or categories of evidence. This lack of accessibility inhibits specialists from contextualising their findings, and was exemplified recently by the Archaeology on Furlough project tripling the known number of aurochs finds in Britain by trawling online records, journals and museum records (Wiseman 2020). The results of the surveys presented here, which targeted both environmental archaeologists specifically and the wider sector, demonstrate a significant appetite amongst archaeologists to improve data networks and for their work to contribute meaningfully to research agendas. Contextualised within a disciplinary landscape that is increasingly dynamic in its approach to tackling the openness and connectivity of 'big data', we argue that better data synthesis in environmental archaeology, and the developer-funded sector more broadly, can be more than just a mirage on the horizon, particularly once the people who produce the data are given an active voice in the matter.

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  • Keywords: archaeology, open science, FAIR, environmental archaeology, open data
  • Accepted: 15 January 2024. Published: 29 February 2024
  • Funding: The 'Rewilding' Later Prehistory project is funded by the UKRI (MR/W00755X/1)
  • PDF download (main article text only)

Corresponding author: Tina RoushannafasORCID logo
Oxford Archaeology Ltd

Polydora Baker
Historic England

Gill CampbellORCID logo
Historic England

Emma JenkinsORCID logo
Bournemouth University

Jen Parker Wooding
Chartered Institute for Archaeologists

Ruth PellingORCID logo
Historic England

Marc Vander LindenORCID logo
Bournemouth University

Fay Worley ORCID logo
Historic England

Anwen CooperORCID logo
Oxford Archaeology Ltd

Full text

Figure 1: Platforms used by respondents and/or their relevant organisations for storing/sharing specialist data/reports, as indicated in a survey of environmental archaeologists (n=60, multiple choices permitted, insert shows summarised results).

Figure 2: Responses to questions on integrating synthetic research with other employment roles, asked in a survey of environmental archaeologists (n=60).

Figure 3: Responses to the questions 'When is the last time your received training in database/data management and/or data analytical skills?' displayed as the percentage of respondents across two surveys (n=106).

Figure 4: Future training: a word cloud of statistical, geographical and database management systems and languages that respondents across two surveys expressed an interest in undertaking.

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